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Tips & shafts
By George Fels
Consulting Editor George Fels has been writing for Billiards Digest since 1980, and his "Tips & Shafts" column is usually our readers' first stop when they crack open the magazine. For better or worse, pool has been his only mistress for 40-plus years.


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Best of Fels
 
December: Humbuggin’ Paul
December 2020

By George Fels
[Reprinted from December 1998]


He was one of those guys who always seemed to be at the poolroom. When Eddie Tayler sent word he wanted to play Bugs Rucker, Paul Jones was there first, looking for bottom-feeding opportunities (which were plentiful, considering the match never came off). When Rucker played Efren Reyes, Jones was not only there, but also served as a ploy, attempting to nettle Rucker and weaken his focus on the upcoming encounter (which apparently worked). His knowledge of major league baseball records was at the quiz-show champion level; his knowledge of African-American pool players was even better than that; and, as he was quick to argue, or “humbug,” about anything from those two topics down to chewing gum, it is to the man’s everlasting credit, now that he’s gone, that everybody seemed to love him.

Talk about men whom you expected to bury us all. Paul Jones as a young man had the torso, especially the arms, of an accomplished bodybuilder, although he seldom hefted anything much heavier than 20 ounces; to his dying day, he was a daily jogger. He attended high school, and regularly played pickup basketball, with former Notre Dame and L.A. Lakers star Tom Hawkins. With his distinguished high forehead and chiseled features, he resembled the late, great character-actor Moses Gunn. Give him the benefit of expert musical production, and he could have out sung many of today’s pop headliners; he copyrighted several songs of his own. When Illinois State Lottery winner and billiards patron Fran Stansz died, Paul penned an eloquent elegy that still adorns the walls at Chris’s Billiards.

Chicago has generally been ahead of other major cities with respect to pool integration. Top Black players periodically would visit the downtown Bensinger’s as far back as the early ’50s. But Paul Jones was one of the first I can remember who started coming around regularly to the white-neighborhood rooms too, starting back in the early-to-mid-’60s, not that he needed to. “Pool hustling was really good back then,” he told me once. “In one stretch of the South Side that was only about a mile square, there were eight, nine rooms. You didn’t have to hang out anyplace; you just made the rounds. I’d make $60, $70 in one place, leave before I wore out my welcome, and move on somewhere else.”

Actually, in the three decades I knew him, I rarely saw him hustle; even more rarely did I see him lose. At his peak, in the late ’70s, he was probably within a ball or so of Chicago’s best player, Artie Bodendorfer, which is to say very, very good. I was insufferably proud of having broken even last time we gambled, and quit him forever on that triumphant note.

Part of what made him so tough at the table was his drudgerous pace, which even gained him the dubious distinction of national notoriety in David McCumber’s fine book, “Playing Off the Rail,” He also displayed a superb sense of the value of yanking the other guy’s chain — and at just the right time, often using off-the-wall causes to start long, loud arguments that went nowhere except to get the opponent playing out of sync. Some of his more memorable playing imbroglios took place against Chicago’s marvelous Freddy Bentivegna, who approached but did not match Jones in slowness, and was easily his equal in contentiousness. Any given game could last an hour, any race could last several, and it was this tedium that McCumber captured brilliantly. When Freddy would finally abandon the forensics and return to the table, his living-on-a-faultline waistband would usually offer several inches worth of an impish if vertical wink at the world, adding immeasurably to the color and pageantry of the competition. But mostly they just stalled and argued; money rarely changed hands. There is no reliable word as to how many spectators turned to stone.

As Paul grew older, he was much in demand as a tournament referee, and with his rugged good looks cut quite a figure in tux and kid gloves; he helped run and even organize some local tourneys, too. But there was increasingly less action for Jones, and new management at Chris’s threw him a bone of a job as house pro and cue re-tipper.

And in like manner, his funeral was a telling statement of his popularity. Rucker was there, of course, along with several other old-line Black players, but among the crowd of 100 or so, there was a substantial percentage of whites. Bodendorfer wired flowers from Vegas, and Bentivegna drafted a lovely elegy of his own:

A friend just passed that I used to play.

We battled and argued on many a day.

The knockers can say what they want about this fellow here,

But to me he was fun. To me he was dear.

I’ll miss him a lot, and this I will say:

Oh, to have one more good argument,

What a price I would pay!


Paul was only 62 when he died, hardly lost on me since he isn’t much older than I am, and besides, it had only been a week or so since I caught him crowing that nobody could guess his age. “Forget it, Paul,” I said. “You’re not fooling anybody. I’ve got you right up there with Hawkins.”

“What Hawkins?”

“Tom,” I said calmly, reveling as I watched him grin foolishly and say, “You got me,” and back off. It was one of the few times anybody had ever been seen getting the best of the man.

What a good friend the game lost in Paul Jones. What a good friend we all lost.

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